Jim Ignasher's mysterious aviation tales draw a crowd

Jim Ignasher's mysterious aviation tales draw a crowd

SCITUATE - There is a house somewhere on Putnam Pike, Route 44, in Putnam, Conn., where the owners, if they happen to be gardeners, are no doubt digging up shards of metal here and there, all over in the ground of their front yard

"What's this?" they must wonder before tossing the shard into the trash.

What our mythical homeowners have encountered, according to local historian Jim Ignasher of Smithfield, are parts of a World War II era airplane that crashed Nov. 29, 1944.

The plane came down just a few feet before the front door of the house, according to a contemporary newspaper photo that shows officials digging at the site. Ignasher displayed the photo during the presentation he gave Aug. 14 at North Scituate Public Library.

"Forgotten Tales of Rhode Island: World War II Aviation Series" was the title of his address, attended by about 50 people, the largest crowd Ignasher said he's ever had.

The event was free. He specializes in "stories no one ever heard before," he told the gathering. He combs through old newspapers now in microfiche, such as the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call, and he obtains formerly secret military documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, such as those pertaining to World War II activity in northern Rhode Island.

There was more airplane activity in the local area in the 1940s than one might expect.

Ignasher noted there were seven airports in the area, including Hillsgrove (now Green), Groton, Falmouth, Westerly and Woonsocket

Accidents were not necessarily rare, either, when you consider, as Ignasher said, that young pilots were rushed through training in the race to war, and the production of planes could be rushed as well.

The plane that crashed on Putnam Pike was a P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the largest and heaviest fighters in history that Ignasher said was "probably our best fighter plane." The plane was one of four that took off together from Westerly on a routine training flight.

As the four flew through a bank of clouds on the way toward Connecticut, three of the planes emerged from the clouds and one did not. It vanished. A search subsequently revealed that the plane had crashed and exploded; there was no sign of the pilot or any human remains at the crash site.

"The public never found out" about this incident, Ignasher said. Reports were classified until now. The crash remained under federal investigation for a long time, and after much study it was eventually ascertained that:

The pilot was a combat veteran with a stellar record who had "shot down every aircraft" he encountered in the Pacific, Ignasher said, but he had an "extreme phobia," "an intense fear," of flying in clouds. Investigators believe he panicked in the cloud bank and physically got out of the plane, and then part of it - perhaps the stabilizer, Ignasher said - hit him in the head, killing him instantly. His body was found about three miles away from the crash site.

Ignasher declines to put a name to the 1944 pilot out of respect for him and his family. He suggested that the pilot was probably rushed through training, lacking instrumentation experience, and his fear of clouds indicates he may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, unknown in WWII.

The tale of the unknown pilot is just one of several stories Ignasher shares with listeners.

Did you know there was a top-secret World War II listening post on Darby Road?

"We spied on everybody around," Ignasher said, noting the post today is a private home.

The disappearance of Lt. Arthur J. Cassidy Jr., of Cranston, remains a mystery.

According to Ignasher, Cassidy was the pilot of a Wildcat carrier-based aircraft coming back from North Africa aboard the USS Ranger after providing air cover for Operation Torch, the first major operation of the war, when the plane disappeared March 30, 1943. It was one of six planes, probably low on fuel, flying together; the others crash-landed.

Witnesses reported seeing a Wildcat in trouble in the area of the Attleboros, but a massive search that included even a blimp and extended to northern Rhode Island turned up empty.

"To this day, the plane was never found," Ignasher said, "and no one knows what happened to it."

He shows on the projector screen a black and white photo of Cassidy, who was lost along with his plane. Ignasher theorizes that someone may know where the wreck is, and not realizing its significance, never bothered to report it.

Or maybe some day, someone walking in the woods will come upon the rusted, crumpled remnants of the craft.

Ignasher showed a photo of what a plane wreck would look like after so many years in the woods, and it's no more than a piece of rusted metal half-buried under a bunch of leaves.

Other tales Ignasher told include the story of the Smithfield Airport, established in 1932 in a corn field where Bryant University is today, by John Evan, an early air enthusiast and pilot. The airport led to a lifelong friendship between Evan and Major William Benn, who was forced to land there in a storm in the early 1930s.

Benn was flying an open cockpit O-38 Observation plane with canvas wings, according to Ignasher, a craft that was already obsolete. It is a good thing that he survived the storm because he became a war hero in World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on Jan. 18, 1943.

"On that very day, he took off (in his plane) and was never seen again," Ignasher said. The wreckage of his plane was found in the 1950s.

But the story doesn't end there.

The roof of the Smithfield Airport lives on, and is now the roof of the factory building that houses Allmark International Inc., 18 Industrial Drive, Smithfield, according to Klebert Hall, who works at the sign-making business. He said the roof of the airport hangar is on cinder blocks at the factory.

Ignasher will be back at the North Scituate library right before Halloween for another free lecture, on Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m., to discuss "True Tales of the Macabre."